Lawsuit: Trump uses census citizenship question to raise campaign cash

NEW YORK—Not content with intimidating Hispanic-named people with a loaded citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. Census, Republican President Donald Trump – 10 days before his Commerce Department announced its decision – used his approval of the query as a tactic to raise campaign cash.

Trump then repeated his boast in yet another fundraising letter the day before Commerce added the question to the census, an updated lawsuit filed in federal court in Manhattan against Trump’s agency reveals.

That second fundraising letter, sent March 28, also urges donors to “please sign our official petition to defend the president’s decision to make citizenship a question on the 2020 U.S. Census.”

The Trump-Pence Make America Great Again Committee sent both letters. It had raised $34 million for the 2020 campaign even before those two census-oriented letters went out, federal records show.

The census count is vital for both political and financial reasons. Counting how many people there are and where they are – which is all the U.S. Constitution requires – determines both U.S. House seats for each state and gives states data for drawing accurate congressional, state senate and state house districts, working under the “one person, one vote” rule.

And federal dollars are often doled out for specific programs depending on how many residents of a particular class – Hispanic-named people, African-Americans and low-income kids among them – live in a particular area.

Fewer people counted equals weaker clout in Washington and state capitals and fewer federal and state dollars flowing into a community.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan by the attorneys general of 18 states, Washington, D.C., the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the mayors of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle and several smaller cities seeks to stop Trump’s Commerce Department from asking people in the 2020 headcount whether they are citizens or not.

Independent analysts, past Census Bureau chiefs and the officials themselves all agree the “Are you a citizen?” question will intimidate people, especially undocumented people, who speak Spanish or who are from Spanish-speaking nations. That will lead to an even larger undercount than occurred a decade ago, the attorneys general and their allies contend.

But their lawsuit also makes clear Trump’s Justice Department imposed the citizenship question on the census at his order. Justice sent the citizenship question demand to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department includes the Census Bureau.

“It is clear that DOJ’s stated rationale for demanding citizenship information from every resident in the country was contrary to the evidence and was not, in fact, the true reason DOJ sought this change from the Census Bureau,” the lawsuit says.

“On March 19, 2018, President Trump’s re-election campaign sent a fundraising e-mail stating: ‘The president wants the 2020 Census to ask people whether or not they are citizens…The president wants to know if you’re on his side,” the letter asks prospective donors.

Ten days later, and the day before Ross’ ruling, Trump’s campaign sent out another fundraising letter stating he “officially mandated” the census include the citizenship question.

When Ross announced he was adding the citizenship question to the census, after virtually no testing at all about its impact on whether people would respond to census-takers or shy away, DOJ said it needed the question to “help enforce the Voting Rights Act.”

The state attorneys general and their allies told the court “There was no assertion” in the fundraising letters “that the president sought this information to strengthen enforcement” of that law. Voting rights advocates disparaged that excuse, as it comes from a Trump Justice Department that reversed course and argued in federal courts against enforcing voting rights.

Conflicting explanations for the citizenship question by Trump, Ross, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump’s fundraising letter “make clear the” Voting Rights Act reason “was a pretext,” the suit said.

“The citizenship question is the latest attempt by President Trump to stoke the fires of anti-immigrant hostility,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a statement.

“In one fell swoop, the Commerce Department ignored its own protocols and years of preparation in a concerted effort to suppress a fair and accurate census count from our diverse communities. The administration’s claim that it is simply seeking to protect voting rights is not only laughable, but contemptible.”

Unions and union-allied groups, including Labor’s Council for Latin American Advancement and the Asian-Pacific American Labor Alliance, have yet to weigh in on the Trump administration’s citizenship question on the census. But the lawsuit makes its impact clear, by showing the minimum numbers of people. taken from the imperfect 2010 census, who could be missed in the 2020 count.

State by state, the lawsuit lists “hard-to-count” households from the last census – those whose residents didn’t return questionnaires – and the proportions of immigrants and foreign-born, including undocumented people, and each state’s share of Hispanic residents. Some of the numbers are large and presumably would be even larger in 2020. Examples include:

– 24.2 percent of New York households, 36 percent of its people and more than half of its Hispanic-named residents are in “hard to count” areas, such as inner cities and far-flung rural counties whose farmers host migrant workers. New York was #4 nationally in numbers of undocumented residents.

– One-fifth (19.3 percent) of Illinois families didn’t mail back their census questionnaires last time, so enumerators had to go out and find them. Immigrants were one of every seven residents and one-quarter of the immigrants were undocumented. Some 48 percent of Chicagoans were in hard-to-count neighborhoods, and 21 percent of the city’s residents are immigrants. Of those, 435,000 were undocumented.

– More than one-quarter (27 percent) of Californians are foreign-born, and that rises to 35 percent in San Francisco. Los Angeles was not included in the lawsuit, but Wikipedia reports the nation’s second-lar-gest city is 47.5 percent Hispanic-named, 10.7 percent Asian-named and 9.8 percent African-American.

The Trump administration’s “decision to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census questionnaire will lead to undercounts in immigrant communities and as a result, disproportionately affect areas with larger immigrant communities,” the attorneys general said.

And, in an understatement of what Trump really wants, the lawsuit then adds: “Redistricting on the basis of these inaccurate numbers will harm these areas vis-à-vis other areas within their states with smaller immigrant communities.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.